If all 9.7-billion apples that Washington State produces were lined up, they’d run 18.5 times around the earth’s equator or stretch almost to the moon and back.
And yet, somehow, the industry manages to get all those apples harvested one at a time and get them to the consumer free of bruises and in good condition, Bob Brammer noted at the Washington State Horticultural Association’s annual meeting.
But Brammer, who is general manager of the growing and packing operation Crane & Crane at Brewster, –Washington, said that politics may make it more difficult to get the crop picked and force apple growers to change the way they source their harvest labor.
Crane & Crane, which has 1,000 acres of tree fruits, has been using the H-2A guest-worker program to bring in guest workers from Mexico for the past two seasons. Last year, it brought in 70 H-2A workers to supplement 50 locally hired workers, most of whom had thinned and picked fruit for the company for three years or more. Only five domestic workers showed up at the orchard looking for work.
"What would we have done had I not had those 70 –H-2A people to get that fruit picked?" he wondered.
But they didn’t come without cost. Brammer encouraged growers thinking of using the H-2A program to talk first with someone who has used it. It’s expensive, he said, and some of the costs are not intuitive. "If you decide to go down that road, I wish you luck, because it is painful."
The program requires that guest workers be paid the Adverse Effect Wage Rate of $9.91 per hour, which is $1.86 higher than Washington’s minimum wage rate.
Washington growers already pay apple pickers on average an hourly equivalent wage of $11 an hour, so the impact of the Adverse Effect Wage Rate is not as great as might be thought, Brammer said.
However, if the workers are doing jobs other than picking during the gaps in harvest, such as propping, cleaning, and mowing, the Adverse Effect Wage Rate still applies, and domestically recruited workers must be paid the same rate as guest workers doing the same job. And, the $9.91 floor price for labor might mean a restructuring of the rest of the wages.
"This situation can really start to mess up your budget in a hurry," Brammer commented.
Then there are the fixed costs for bringing in guest workers. Brammer estimates that administrative costs are about $200 per worker, plus $500 for travel, $82 for local transportation, and $55 for meals. "That’s $837 per person before they ever work an hour," he said.
The length of the contract determines the impact of those costs. For a 450-hour, harvest-only contract, the fixed costs work out at $1.86 per hour on top of wages.
Brammer said that the workers invariably arrive at the orchard at night, tired, hungry, without money, and with no transportation, and the employer needs to take care of them. Brammer said his company provided a bus and driver to take them to the grocery store and allowed them each a tab of $50.
Good communication is essential, Brammer stressed, as this might be their first time in an apple orchard, and it’s critical to get them off on the right foot. As soon as they arrive, he runs an orientation program at the orchard to brief them on all company policies, employing an –interpreter who speaks good English and Spanish.
"Go through the contract item by item, face to face, and be sure everybody understands," he advised. "This is not the time to skimp on translation."
Guest workers should be integrated into the regular crew, he said. "If there are people doing the same job, don’t think you can isolate them and have a person doing a job at one wage and another person at another wage."
Sit down and talk
The employer should communicate with the guest workers on a regular basis, and sit down with them each payday to discuss problems. At the close of the contract, find out what worked and what didn’t. Document what was covered during orientation, as well as the training sessions, safety meetings, and counseling sessions.
"Document everything, and get them to sign it," –Brammer advised. "If these bases are covered, dealing with a problem employee won’t be a problem."
It’s also important to document domestically hired workers, including if and when they showed up and how long they stayed.
"Do not cut corners," Brammer said, warning that state and federal agencies and worker-advocacy groups will be monitoring the situation. "If a problem arises, an honest, good-faith effort at compliance is going to put you in a better position to solve the problem. Don’t go trying to be clever. Be straightforward."
There are positive sides to the H-2A program, he added. "H-2A workers tend to be more polite and clean-cut than people who come in off the street looking for work," he said. "They’re also tied to your operation."
The biggest positive for Brammer is that he has confidence in his ability to drastically reduce the risk of a repeat of 2005 when the company almost lost 60,000 bins of fruit because of a lack of pickers and spent the winter trying to get people to buy the fruit at a discounted rate.
"That cost us a huge amount of money, and it was the primary driving factor for us to get into this," he said. "Yes, it’s expensive, but so was that."